Meeting with enthusiastic harpist Sivan Megan turned into an eye-opening conversation about the instrument: one which is typically sidelined by composers and concert venues alike.
photo credit: musicians designs
While there are an astounding number of harpists around, who, as Sivan shares, are flocking somewhat regularly (every three years) to worldwide harp conventions by the hundreds, a harp performance these days, whether solo or in a chamber music setting, is still quite the rarity.
Harp performers will often combine teaching positions with an orchestral contract, like Sivan’s mentor at Juilliard, Nancy Allen, who holds the position of principal harpist with the New York Philharmonic. Sivan himself has built a reputation as teacher, holding a teaching position at Brooklyn College and giving international master classes.
Growing up in Israel, Sivan first studied piano and then harp with Irena Kaganovski-Kessler at Jerusalem’s Academy for Music and Dance. He eventually reached Juilliard via Paris, where he had initially found his love for the harp, and continued his studies at the somewhat authoritarian Paris Conservatoire. Relating strongly to his mentor, Isabelle Moretti, he still longed for a different artistic climate: “When I came to New York for my master’s degree, I felt so free; it’s a much easier city to become a part of than Paris, especially the music scene. It’s so vibrant,” he says. “I was always astonished to hear others complain about the competitive character of Juilliard when I felt it was such a relaxed environment – at least next to Paris,” he remembers.
At Juilliard, Sivan connected with a group of Israeli friends, among them pianist Assaff Weisman and clarinetist Tibi Cziger, and became one of the founding members of Israeli Chamber Project, (photo)an ensemble that started concertizing in Israel in 2007/2008. The group’s initial goal was to bring musicians who had left Israel for their studies abroad back to their roots, where they would teach and perform for the people they left behind. Under Weisman and Cziger’s entrepreneurial leadership, the project grew and succeeded, giving the talented group of young Israeli musicians – piano, clarinet, strings and harp – many opportunities to showcase Israel’s culture throughout the United States, and recently, internationally as well. A CD recording on the Azica label with works by Saint-Saens and Martinu (Debussy, and others) grew out of Sivan’s collaboration with the ensemble in 2012. “Martinu,” Sivan says, “is one of the few composers within the repertoire where the collaboration between piano and harp is working incredibly well; more often the piano’s resonance easily overthrows the resonance coming from the harp.”
Some of Sivan’s most musically formative experiences happened to him during his four summers spent at Marlboro, where he plans to return next summer. His first all-Britten recording in 2012 on the Avie label grew out of the collaboration with baritone Nicholas Phan at Marlboro, and he formed many other fruitful relationships there, both musical and personal. When Sivan was placed with violist Kim Kashkashian and flautist Marina Piccinini to explore chamber performance at Marlboro in 2010, “we all really hit it off,” he says, identifying the special environment and the musicians’ capacity to freely and fully explore repertoire, as what made his time at Marlboro one of his most rewarding musical experiences. Their trio, Tre Voci, has just released a recording on the ECM label. “As a harpist,” Sivan says, commenting on the importance of exchanging musically with others, “one often feels isolated from other musicians. We are on a musical island, rarely play with each other, and it’s infrequent that one gets to perform with such exquisite musicians in a chamber situation, like one finds at Marlboro.” photo credit: musicians design
Like with any artistic instrumental interpretation, there are completely different musical approaches possible while mastering the harp’s expressiveness. “I admire certain approaches, even if they differ tremendously from my own, or my mentor’s,” he says, referring to Isabelle Moretti, after whose communicative playing he molds his own performance style. “For example, I greatly admire the Berlin Philharmonic’s harpist, Marie-Pierre Langlamet, whose soft, lyrical quality of playing lures the listener in,” he explains, “yet my playing has a completely different character. Sound can vary a lot,” he claims. Critics have hailed Sivan’s performances as exhibiting an “impressive virtuosity and great range of expression... a breathtaking performance…played to perfection” (telavivcity.com). American Record Guide picked up on his “rhetorical flow,” WQXR hailed him as a “magician,” and Sivan was the 2012 winner of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust rewarding musical excellence. With his particular sound, Sivan seems to go all-out with astonishing vigor and a crisp, energetic sound – which is perhaps rather unexpected from an instrument associated with angels’ delicate voices.
“There are hundreds of different tone colors achievable on the harp; this is what makes the instrument so special to me – this, and the matter of resonance, which is based on the fact that there is always sympathetic resonance, which is such an asset and at the same time its inherent difficulty,” Sivan explains. “The specific quality of sound is connected to the tension between the different registers of the harp, and its extreme differences. The art is to both use this tension, and then to get rid of it where you don’t want it. It’s a matter of utmost tone control and it’s very directly connected to the grasp of the fingers – much more directly than at the piano, where the tone is transferred through the keys that hit the strings, or the string instruments, where the bow is used to transmit the vibration of tone. At the harp everything is happening at your fingertips, and just the slightest variation in how you pluck the string creates a different soundscape,” he says.
Sivan also explained to me the unique struggles that harpists deal with while finding new and challenging repertoire: “When it comes to repertoire, we were not lucky enough to have the great composers of the 18th and 19th century write for us, so we have to transcribe a lot of works, meant for other instrumentalisation, or commission new works, for the instrument - I do a lot of both, and then the question is, what is technically possible. There are certain limits, for example as to how chromatic a piece can be, in order to be transcribed. If there is a lot of melodic movement in the base, it rarely works for the harp, because of all the resonances; it’s hard to muffle the base at a certain time, since it loses the momentum for a strong enough attack, coming from the lower register to create the right texture. Complex contrapuntal writing, unless it’s solely in the upper register, is problematic to transcribe for harp, limiting its possibilities of choices.”
photo credit: Lyon & Healy Harps
He continues, “For example, The Well-Tempered Clavier, with its many configurations in the middle and lower register, would not work well for the harp, losing its explicit clarity…But certain works of Bach can work rather well; I would, for example, love to transcribe the six French Suites, or also some of Chopin’s Mazurkas,” he says and confirms that “there are many, many possibilities.” He continues: “I love collaborations with all strings, in particular the violin, or viola, but also percussion works well with the harp’s resonances, even electronics, and I am constantly looking to expand the repertoire with new commissions.”
“The almost violent dynamics reached on the harp, especially in modern music, is something audiences are often fascinated with.” Sivan’s recorded and live work has garnered a great deal of praise both critically and popularly. His debut solo album, Fantasien, released in February on the Linn label to critical praise, aims to show the broad range of expressive possibilities of the harp, exploring the form of Fantasy from the Baroque to the early 20th century. A second disc recorded for the same label this June, is forthcoming. It will juxtapose French music of the 21st century with the golden age of the harp in France – which is the early 20th century.
Being so intimately familiar with the vast potential of the instrument, Sivan sometimes shrugs in frustration at how fringed the harp still seems to be in the eyes of even avid concert-goers: “There is definitely a tendency for people to underestimate the expressive potential of the instrument and its diversity of sound,” he says. “Many imagine a harp solo recital to be boring. I always get responses after a recital, like ‘I did not know that harp can sound like that,’ or ‘now I want to hear more…’ The difficulty is bringing people in for the first time, audiences and concert presenters alike.”
Sivan Magen will perform at LePoisson Rouge on October 6th as part of the trio Tre Voce, celebrating their Cd-release with music by Rameau, Debussy, and Sofia Gubaidulina and as soloist at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on October 21st.